In the last three decades, American society has been increasingly “fetally fascinated.” This preoccupation with the fetus takes many forms, including ongoing debates about “fetal rights,” fetal consciousness, fetal tissue research, fetal surgery, visualizing the fetus, and commodifying the fetus (Casper 1998; Daniels 1993; Duden 1993; Franklin 1991; Petchesky 1987; Stabile 1992). The cultural obsession with the fetus in utero is understandable, given the implications for women’s reproductive rights and the powerful emotions that fetal representations evoke. At the same time, this fetal focus has obscured another important cultural phenomenon, the ever-increasing presence of what could be called the “ex utero” fetus or premature infant.
The American understanding and classification of premature infants has changed dramatically from the late nineteenth century to the present. What were categorized previously as miscarriages, abortuses, “weaklings,” or unsalvageable fetuses are now called “premature infants,” subject to a variety of medical and social interventions designed to finish what nature has failed to complete.
Nonetheless, the premature baby remains an “unfinished infant,” not yet constituting a consistently uniform or clearly bounded subject. I suggest that the premature infant, commonly assumed to be a natural subject, is in fact a product of specific social and cultural forces. For these reasons, the contemporary phenomenon of the